Our Unrepresentative Government: It Has Consequences
by Stoney Bird
Stoney Bird worked for many years on the in-house legal staff of major corporations. With David Maas he recently gave a course in Western’s Academy of Lifelong Learning entitled “Democracy in the United States: Promise and Reality.” There will likely be a follow-on in the fall.
This is the thirteenth in a continuing series of articles that began with the January, 2014 issue. The series addresses the impediments to democracy and well-being in American society.
“What we are talking about is an ancient democracy. The people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard, the wrong lizard might get in.”
— Douglas Adams1
Electoral System Defects Have Consequences
In this series of articles, I’ve written a few times about the defects in our electoral system. Last July, the article dealt with how our winner-take-all elections are structurally unrepresentative.2 The article in the October/November issue presented the alternative that the vast majority of democracies in the world have adopted: proportional representation.3 In January, I showed how winner-take-all elections seem to create an irresistible temptation for politicos to engage in wholesale gerrymandering, even when (as in Washington State), the gerrymandering is bi-partisan.4 I urged the Charter Review Commission to propose proportional representation for the Whatcom County Council elections.
These defects in the structure of our elections sit alongside the system of legalized bribery enacted by the Supreme Court’s decisions, from the 1970’s Buckley v. Valeo5 outcome (“money is speech”) to the infamous Citizens United6 case of 2010 (no limits on “independent” expenditures).
They also sit alongside the anti-democratic and anti-republican features of the U.S. Constitution.7 The structural barriers to majority rule set up by the Constitution are numerous, beginning with the separation of powers (amongst the House of Representatives, Senate, President and Supreme Court), all of which must be brought into line to produce any significant change. Then there is the unrepresentative character of the Senate and the Electoral College. Just to pick one aspect, and using the 2010 census figures, if the smallest 26 states band together, they can produce a winning vote in the Senate with a combined population of only 50,368,140 – 17.9 percent of the total population. In this array of institutions with commanding power, the people have no direct say whatsoever in selecting the members of the Supreme Court, the only branch of the federal government that is allowed to legislate all by itself. Nor do the people have any direct role in amending the Constitution.
In the face of these affronts to democracy (or a republic), it is astonishing that many Americans still believe that we have one – or that the United States feels entitled to traverse the globe bombing, droning and subverting governments so as to bring to the unenlightened masses “the American Way of Life.”
Douglas Adams, with his parable of the lizards quoted up above, was on to something.
These defects in the system have consequences for people’s lives. We keep voting – and yet the government keeps doing things that are against the interests and desires of the voters – and against what the voters hoped to get when they voted. In my conversations with people across the political spectrum, what I hear again and again is the sense that Congress isn’t paying attention. Both of the great social movements of our time, the Tea Party and Occupy, are expressions of this frustration.
I was reminded of this on Earth Day. The Boundary Bay Brewery held a little Earth Day celebration. I and a few other members of the Whatcom Green Party set up a booth and handed out a list of issues that the Green Party stands for, and that the two corporate parties either oppose or waffle about. You can see the results in the table above headed “Mark Where You Stand.”
As to which party “opposes” and which party “waffles,” I’ll let you guess. I bet you can.
We also put up a flip chart and asked people to mark down which column they supported. You can see the results in the table above headed “Mark Where You Stand.” 8 Now, admittedly, the crowd was assembled for Earth Day and so were inherently biased towards the Green side of things, and heck, many of them were under 30, so they can’t possibly know about “the way things really work in life,” but for Green views to get a complete shutout against the “mainstream” parties? What’s going on?
Still, if this little poll were the only indication of what Americans really want — as opposed to what our elected “representatives” are delivering — it wouldn’t be very persuasive. Luckily, there are more rigorous studies about this divergence.
Democracy by Coincidence
In 2014, a couple of political scientists, one from Princeton and the other from Northwestern, published a study in which they analyzed whether ordinary Americans had influence over what Congress did.9 They looked at 1,779 issues over the period 1981 to 2002. On each of the issues, the public had expressed its views through survey results. The surveys also gathered income information about the survey respondents and information about whether they were sympathetic to various organized interest groups. On each of the issues, Congress was being asked unambiguously to change policy.
The political scientists used statistical methods to analyze when and to what extent Congress was being influenced by four groups: the general public, business interest groups, mass-based interest groups, and the wealthy (for the purposes of this study, the top 10 percent in income). What they found was that the effect of the general public’s views on Congressional decisions was precisely zero. On the other hand, if the general public happened to want the same thing as the wealthy, they got what they wanted 80 percent of the time. As the authors say, this amounts to “democracy by coincidence.”
Notably, these findings relate to the period before Citizens United. The flood of corporate PAC money had already been released by Supreme Court legislation like Buckley v Valeo.
People Push – Congress Stalls
Earlier this year, a group called Progressive Change Institute published the results of a survey it had commissioned. The way the survey was conducted is fascinating. Last fall, the Institute surveyed its own members to identify issues the members thought important. The members came up with a list of 34 issues.10 The Institute then organized a survey of voters across the political spectrum about their views on these “progressive” issues. A majority of all voters supported these “progressive” issues, with the majorities being 60 percent or more on 26 of the issues.
For our purposes right now, the point is that these are issues that the public holds strong views on, some of them for a long time – and that Congress is sitting on its hands big time. Their failure to represent the interests of the public at large is radical, a subversion of the principles on which the Republic was founded.
What to Do
There are many who emphasize the responsibility to vote. All the surveys I’ve described show that voting in our current system doesn’t hold much sway. We keep voting for lizards — whether they were lizards before we voted for them (and we just didn’t know) or they became lizards upon being elected really doesn’t matter. In office, they are lizards.
Judging by recent election turnouts, many people are beginning to understand that the system is a sham and have decided to stop participating, an entirely reasonable response. In fact, it might make sense to start a social movement for everyone to stop voting – a boycott of our sham electoral processes. Then the powers-that-be could no longer maintain the pretense.
There is currently a move to correct low turnout by making voting mandatory. Requiring people to vote would not correct the features of our system that allow our “representatives” to ignore us. It’s those features that need to be corrected, not the voters.
The opening of this article may have suggested some other courses of action. Of course, one of them is already pretty much up and running: the movement to get money out of politics.11
If we are really to obtain representative government, however, we have to go beyond that. We will need to adopt proportional representation at all levels of government. Under the Constitution, the states have the power to determine the “time, place, and manner” of Congressional elections — unless Congress pre-empts.12 Unfortunately, Congress has pre-empted. In 1967, it passed a law requiring that all Congress-people be elected by winner-take-all elections from single-member districts.13 For Washington State (or any other) to adopt proportional representation in its Congressional elections, Congress would have to amend that 1967 law. Congress could of course directly mandate proportional representation in the elections to Congress. For the Washington State legislative elections, the state legislature can do that on its own.
Not the least of the benefits of proportional representation is that people who live where it has been adopted are more likely to feel that the government they elected actually represents their interests — that their votes matter — and are therefore more likely to take the trouble to vote.14
And we can’t stop there. Far from providing government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the U.S. Constitution is mired in the thinking of the 1 percent of two hundred years ago. The 1 percent of our own time like what their predecessors created just fine. We will not have what Honest Abe claimed we have until we amend the Constitution big time, top to bottom. I suggested some of the ways it needs to be amended in the opening paragraphs of this article.
• Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Volume 12, Issue 3, September 2014, pp 564-581. The article is also available from Stoney Bird at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Progressive Change Institute, “Poll of Likely 2016 Voters.” The poll results in the form discussed in this article are no longer available on the website of the Institute, although they are being used as the basis for discussions with members of Congress in a somewhat different form. See http://thinkbig.us. Readers who wish to see the original poll results should get in touch with Stoney Bird at email@example.com.
1. Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish, Volume 3 of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984.” The passage is somewhat shortened and paraphrased.
2. Our System of Elections: Structurally Unrepresentative, Whatcom Watch, July, 2014, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1743.
3. Proportional Representation: Actual Representation, Whatcom Watch, October/November, 2014, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1774.
4. An Election System for Whatcom County: Results Not Predetermined by the Designers of the System, Whatcom Watch, February, 2015, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1816.
5. Buckley v Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckley_v._Valeo
6. Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._FEC
7. See my Whatcom Watch articles on the Constitution: The Constitution: Property, Commerce, Empire and Corporations Over People, Communities and Nature, Part 1, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1714 and Part 2, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1729.
8. If you go to the website of the Green Party of Washington, you can see the complete sheet showing the opponents and the wafflers: www.gp-wa.org/literature_flyers
9. Gilens and Page, see Bibliography.
10. The issues range across the political, economic, and social landscape, from letting the government negotiate drug prices, through expanding social security, to closing for-profit prisons. Readers who wish to see the survey results and its questions for themselves should contact Stoney Bird at firstname.lastname@example.org.
11. Move to Amend and Represent.us are two of these movements. For Move to Amend, go to http://movetoamend.org. For its Washington State affiliate (Wamend), go to http://www.wamend.org. For Represent.us, go to https://represent.us/.
12. U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 4.
13. 2 U.S.C. 2c.
14. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Electoral System Design: the New International IDEA Handbook, 2005, p. 58, http://www.idea.int/publications/esd/upload/esd_chapter3.pdf.